There is a scene in the delightful 1980s British television series Yes Minister in which a civil servant explains to a politician that the reason Britain entered the European Union was to frustrate the aim of a united Europe.
Britain, he says, has had one clear interest for centuries: to protect its own security and economy by keeping continental Europeans at odds with one another. The joke — newly relevant thanks to the Brexit vote this year — has the added benefit of being fundamentally true.
And so it is with Russia and the United States. Russia has an interest in not getting along with the United States, which is going to frustrate any American administration, like it or not.
America’s main interest overseas is in maintaining liberal (small “l”) systems of trade, investment and navigation that allow American companies to flourish, and in spreading associated values of liberal (small “l”) democracy that help keep the peace.
Russia’s main foreign policy interest is to overcome the geographic disadvantage of largely being cut off from the Atlantic and Indian Oceans by maintaining a network of client states with better access to either. The liberal international order that the U.S. seeks to advance often threatens Russia’s privileged relationship with those states.
In addition, the Russian government uses an aggressive foreign policy to bolster its domestic priorities. It is easier to argue for a more powerful central authority, and diminished civil liberties, when the country is ringed by enemies, real and imagined.
The old foreign policy adage holds that nations have no permanent friends or enemies — only permanent interests. Such is the case with Russia, which has a permanent interest in thwarting the United States and opposing our liberalizing global aims.
For that reason, any U.S. foreign policy aiming primarily to forge a close friendship with Russia is probably going to fail. That was the case with President Barack Obama, who came to office believing the lingering tension in U.S.-Russian relations was entirely George W. Bush’s fault. Together with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who offered Russia an infamous “reset” button, Obama tried eagerly to appease Russia — on missile defense, Syria, Iran, Ukraine, and much else besides.
Even that wasn’t enough to improve relations. Russian hacking and espionage accelerated, and Russia gave shelter to Edward Snowden after he exposed critical American national security secrets. Still, the U.S. did little in response, other than to apply limited sanctions, and pathetic complaints, in response to Russian aggression in the Ukraine. Indeed, when Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) proposed a plan to punish Russia for its hacking and disinformation campaigns, the Obama administration rejected it.
Now Obama has decided, in his lame duck days, to expel 35 Russian diplomats — purportedly for hacking during the U.S. election, and also — more credibly — for harassing American diplomats abroad. Whatever the merits of that response, the timing is highly questionable. Not only has Obama made repairing relations more difficult for his successor, but he has also tweaked a nation still in mourning after its ambassador to Turkey was brutally murdered at a public event earlier this month.
President-elect Donald Trump has proposed to repair relations with Russia, partly by toning down criticism of President Vladimir Putin.
On the one hand, there is no reason to believe any president could succeed in achieving close ties with Russia for the simple reason that its permanent interests are opposed to our own. On the other hand, there is an area of common interest with Russia that could provide the basis for better, less confrontational relations, even with areas of disagreement.
That area of common interest is the fight against radical Islamic terrorism. Under Obama, cooperation with Russia has been weak in that area, largely because Obama refuses to acknowledge that radical Islamic terrorism exists. Russia reportedly tried to warn the Obama administration about the Boston Marathon bombers, but that intelligence was ignored. Trump proposes to work together with Russia against ISIS, setting aside the thorny Syria issue, even if stark differences over other issues persist.
The one area of concern is Eastern Europe, where Russia has been saber-rattling for years, and where hawkish Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John McCcain (R-AZ) are on a solidarity tour. But Putin is unlikely to test Trump in Eastern Europe. He knows Trump’s approach to foreign policy, as on other issues, is to be nice at first, but to retaliate in overwhelming fashion if crossed. Putin won’t risk that confrontation — rather, he will pocket his gains in Ukraine and the Middle East, for now.
The Crimea is unlikely to revert to Ukraine — and that is indeed unfortunate. But that happened squarely on Obama’s watch. One of the more garish aspects of Obama’s foreign policy is that he is doing more in response to the hacking of his party’s emails than he did to protect the territorial integrity of a friendly nation.
Now Obama, who built his career on pointing out the intelligence mistakes of the Iraq War, wants to rush into a dubious cyberwar with Russia.
And they say Trump is scary?
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named one of the “most influential” people in news media in 2016. His new book, See No Evil: 19 Hard Truths the Left Can’t Handle, is available from Regnery through Amazon. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.